Loving your step-child can be both simple and hard. It is not enough for parents, step parents and extended family to feel a deep glow of love for the children in your circle of influence. You must convey that feeling into a message that is heard, felt and integrated by the child. Children need to be told both verbally and non-verbally how much they are valued for just being them.
As I interviewed children for my latest book Raise a Confident Child, I was struck by how many children thought their parent's love was tied to their performance, character or behavior. As Jeremy told me "When ever I score at soccer, my dad really loves me."
As I teach in parenting classes across the country, many people ask me what they can do to have stronger families and more harmony at home. My answer is in the non-verbal clues we give our children. Verbal communication is the language of information and much of that is spent in lecturing, teaching and correcting our children. No wonder they tune most of it out. Studies have shown we remember only 10-20% of what we hear.
Non-verbal communication is the language of relationships and is remembered and believed 80-90% of the time. So even if you do tell your children you love them, do you show them how precious they are to you? Do your actions demonstrate that your love and acceptance is not conditional upon their school grades, soccer goals or manners at the table?
Below are 8 simple (note I did not say easy, because any positive change in behavior is hard, but the end result is well worth the effort) ways to express your love and appreciation to and for your child.
1. Play games together. From the earliest months of your baby's life, it came natural to play peek-a-boo when changing a diaper, or airplane when trying to get food into your toddler's mouth. As children get less dependent on us, we forget to play silly games to hold their attention. Bring out the board games and turn off the TV, or play tag in the backyard. Do not allow competition or winning become more important than just being together.
2. Read with or to them at least 20 minutes daily. Children, even a few months old are comforted and soothed by the sound and rhythm of your voice as you read to them. The most important sounds a child can hear come from his parents and care-givers. When you read to children, you share such an important message for them, that you value reading and learning. Snuggling up and reading every day before bedtime or while dinner is cooking should continue, even after the children can read by themselves. We found the best way to curtail arguments while the after-dinner chores were being done, was to read aloud. Good stories provide problem solving experiences and allow children to look at events in their own lives from a different perspective. Turn off the TV and turn on the imagination as you read together.
3. Start and end each day on a positive note. Remember to use body language to indicate approval. A hug, high five, pat on the back or smile says so much without saying anything verbal .It has been said that eyes are the windows of our souls. If that is indeed true, and I think it is, make sure your eyes always say "hello, I'm glad to see you and I am glad you are in my life." Recognize when your child is helpful and cooperative. Many times we take it for granted when our children do their chores without being reminded, are pleasant to the family and write down messages. However, we only react, sometimes loudly and with negative body language, when the message wasn't given, the chore wasn't done quickly enough or the attitude is less than approachable.
4. Try complimenting them at least once a day. Think of it like a daily vitamin, they may not need the supplementation today, but then again they might. Don't let a day go by without letting them know how much they are appreciated and loved. A wonderful ritual a blended family we know does is recite to children individually each night a list of all the people in their lives that love them. They end with saying, "You are such a blessed and lucky person, look how many people love and care about you."
5. Truly listen to them. One of the most effective ways to show a child you love him or her is to pay attention when they are talking. Be empathic while accepting your child's feelings and try to maintain eye contact while they are sharing with you. Children are often deeply upset over things that seem pretty trivial to adults. When we brush off or trivialize their concerns it feels like a rejection of him personally.
6. Have family meetings. It is good to remember a family is an organization. In fact, it is the basic organization of society. This is just one of the reasons I am such a proponent of family meetings. You wouldn't think of running a successful business without a plan, goal setting meetings, team building sessions and clear missions and expectations. For more information on how to set up family meetings see www.ArtichokePress.com .
7. Develop love touches and signals. The safest touch your new baby has is you. Let him feel your cheek against his sweet little head; rub his legs and arms when you change his diaper. As children grow older, surround them with love in the form of hugs, kisses, holding hands when taking a walk or even winking at them when they look at you. Develop love signals for children as they begin to draw away from displays of affection in public. Perhaps your family gives high fives, touches thumbs, or squeezes each other's hands quickly to show you are all on the same team.
8. Keep a list of reasons you admire them. Sometimes the very things that irritate us the most with children are the strengths they will need to succeed in life. We have to recognize that a stubborn child will turn into a tenacious adult, eventually.
9. Separate the deed from the doer. Remember it is the behavior that we find unacceptable not the child. There is a big difference between the two and when we are angry, we tend to lump them together. Just because John takes money from the dresser does not make him a thief. It makes him a boy who made a bad decision and needs to learn that it is not acceptable to take money or anything else from anyone without permission.
10. Don't make it or take it personal. All families have squabbles and all children say they wish their parents and caregivers were more lenient, generous or understanding. We all try to do the best we can with what we have been given, but we are the adults and must make sure that no matter what the children have given or called us, that we give them guidance, love, discipline and respect. It is our obligation to set consistent boundaries and to assist them in growing into self-directed, contributing members of society.
So often we do what is called unconscious parenting, just getting through the day. It is not that we don't love our family; it is just that the love sometimes gets lost in the translation through poor communications or unskillful methods. I would like to challenge you to be more conscious in the words and actions that affect the children in your circle of influence. Hopefully, you will find some techniques here that will assist you in your efforts.
You do the most important work in the world.
"I was a step-parent at the young age of 24 and would have appreciated the information contained within this article in relation to my role in my step-children's lives. Thank you." -Mary M. Arthur
© Judy H. Wright
Parent educator and PBS "Ready to Learn" consultant, Judy H. Wright works with Head Start staff, child care resource centers, schools and parent organizations internationally. As a powerful and popular presenter for adults who work with children, Judy's also authored over twenty books. For more information on books, clients and testimonials or to book Judy for your next event, call 1-877-842-3431 or go to www.ArtichokePress.com. She is a founding member of Montana Speakers Network and is a regional representative for National Association for Women Writers.